“I was convinced that the workers must organize. Someone must go from shop to shop and find out where the workers were that were willing to work for better working conditions. I must be that someone.” —Mary Kenney O’Sullivan
Born this day in 1864: Mary Kenney O’Sullivan (1864–1943), social reformer and labor organizer; first woman general organizer of the American Federation of Labor
O’Sullivan was born Mary Kenney to Irish immigrants in Hannibal, Missouri. She began working at a young age and by 14 was apprenticed in a book bindery. She worked in binderies in Missouri, Iowa, and then Chicago. She became frustrated that the higher-paying positions were not open to women, and at the same time grew increasing appalled at the working and living conditions of workers, especially working women. She organized the women book binders of Chicago, receiving support from Jane Addams and her Hull House settlement house.
In 1892 labor leader Samuel Gompers appointed Kenney as a general organizer for the American Federation of Labor. She was the first woman to hold that position. For the AF of L she organized garment workers in New York and printers, binders, shoe workers, and carpet weavers in Massachusetts. She clashed with AF of L leaders over their lack of support for equal opportunity and pay for women workers, and the executive council did not renew her contract the following year.
In 1893 she returned to Chicago, organizing garment workers and successfully lobbying the state legislature for labor reforms. She also lobbied for women suffrage and age of consent laws.
In 1894 she married John F. O’Sullivan, a local labor leader in Boston. The couple had four children. O’Sullivan continued her labor organizing and reform work. In 1903 she cofounded the Women’s Trade Union League. This organization brought working class women together with middle class and wealthy women to support labor reform for women and to help them form unions. In 1914 she broke with mainstream labor to support striking textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She brought their case to the state investigating committee and helped the strikers negotiate for significant wage increases.
O’Sullivan was herself heavily involved in investigations and inspections of working conditions. She established the Union for Industrial Progress, which studied working conditions in factories and workshops. As she did in Illinois, in Massachusetts she lobbied for passage of laws regulating factory conditions. She was then appointed as a Massachusetts factory inspector for the Division of Industrial Safety, a position she held for 20 years (1914 to 1934).
Her other reform work included running a settlement house and advocating for woman suffrage, prohibition, and pacifism.
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